The Parkland school shooter has avoided the death penalty after a jury recommended he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the February 2018 massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – a move that left some of the victims’ loved ones disappointed and angry.
The jury’s recommendation Thursday, coming after a monthslong trial to decide Nikolas Cruz’s punishment, is not an official sentence; Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer still is expected to issue the gunman’s formal sentence on November 1. Under Florida law, however, she cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of life.
Families of the gunman’s victims bowed or shook their heads as the verdict forms for each of the 17 people he killed were read in court Thursday morning. The jury found the aggravating factors presented by state prosecutors did not outweigh the mitigating circumstances – aspects of Cruz’s life and upbringing his defense attorneys said warranted only a life sentence.
None of the jurors looked in the direction of the victims’ families as their verdicts were read, but instead looked down or straight ahead. Cruz – flanked by his attorneys, wearing a blue and gray sweater over a collared shirt and eyeglasses – sat expressionless, looking down at the table in front of him.
The 14 slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed – each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old victim Gina, called the jury’s recommendation a “gut punch” for the victims’ families, lamenting that “the monster that killed them gets to live to see another day.”
“This shooter did not deserve compassion,” he said outside the courtroom, after the jury’s findings were read. “Did he show the compassion to Gina when he put the weapon against her chest and chose to pull that trigger, or any of the other three times that he shot her? Was that compassionate?”
Cruz, now 24, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed, and 17 others were injured. Because Cruz pleaded guilty to all counts, the trial phase was skipped and the court went directly to the sentencing phase.
Prosecutors had asked the jury to sentence the gunman to death, arguing Cruz’s decision to carry out the shooting was not only especially heinous or cruel, but premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense contended, related to any neurological or intellectual deficits.
To illustrate their point, prosecutors detailed Cruz’s thorough planning for the shooting, as well as comments he made online expressing his desire to commit a mass killing.
In their case, the shooter’s defense attorneys said Cruz had neurodevelopmental disorders stemming from prenatal alcohol exposure, and presented evidence and witnesses claiming his birth mother had used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him. Cruz’s adoptive mother was not open about this with health professionals or educators, preventing him from receiving the appropriate interventions, the defense claimed.
‘This jury failed our families’
Of the 12 jurors, three voted against the death penalty, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR, saying, “I don’t like how it turned out but it’s that’s how the jury system works.”
“There was one with a hard ‘no,’ she couldn’t do it, and there was another two that ended up voting the same way,” said Thomas.
The woman who was a hard no “didn’t believe because he was mentally ill he should get the death penalty,” Thomas said.
The deliberations became “tense,” a juror wrote in a handwritten letter addressed to Judge Scherer. The juror, who voted against the death penalty for Cruz, wrote to the judge that “some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life.”
In the letter, the juror also denied allegations that she made up her mind to vote for life in prison before the trial began, saying she heard other jurors had made such accusations about her.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting, said that for a juror to decide to recommend a life sentence, they “either didn’t unde